A Blood Test to Identify Aggressive Prostate Cancer


Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer in American men, killing nearly 30,000 per year. In 2004, I attended a conference where one of the nation’s leading researchers in the field declared that the gold-standard test for this disease was not successful at identifying dangerous invasive tumors. That triggered my interest in how to address the challenge of developing a blood test to detect the deadly form of prostate cancer.

After nearly a decade, my collaborators and I have found the first marker that specifically identifies the approximately six to eight percent of prostate cancers that are considered “aggressive,” meaning they will migrate to other parts of the body, at which point they are very difficult to treat. Although we have confirmed this marker, there is much to be done before a clinical application can be developed.

If further study confirms that the test is clinically reliable, it can provide a much-needed tool to differentiate between aggressive cancer and the majority of cases, which are slow-growing tumors with a low probability of migrating to other parts of the body (and thus don’t require special treatment, such as radical prostatectomy).

The current standard test looks at elevated blood prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels, known as the PSA test. Dr. Thomas Stamey, an emeritus faculty member and urologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, published his original findings in 1987 linking elevated blood PSA levels to prostate cancer. In 2004, Dr. Stamey declared that the PSA test was no longer useful for the diagnosis of prostate cancer. Rather, an elevated PSA level is now known to reflect the volume increase of a prostate, which could either be associated with a harmless increase in prostate size called benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), or be caused by cancer.

I began collaborating with Dr. Stamey and his Stanford colleague Dr. Donna Peehl to look for a new prostate cancer marker, hopefully one that would indicate the presence of aggressive prostate cancer through a blood test.  This is a very active area of research, with scientists exploring the idea from (1) a genomics perspective, (2) a proteomics perspective, and (3) a glycomics perspective, the latter of which entails using carbohydrate-based markers to identify cancer. My focus is the third area, where we are concentrating on how the immune system recognizes changes in the carbohydrates found on the surface of cancer cells compared with those on the surface of normal cells.

SRI’s Tumor Glycome Laboratory has discovered a marker that appears to be associated with aggressive prostate cancer. The marker is an antibody that is produced against a carbohydrate molecule on the surface of aggressive prostate cancer cells, and is expressed in increasing levels that correlate with cancer severity. We call it a “cryptic” biomarker, since it only becomes an immunological target if something goes awry in the cell, such as a viral infection or the malignant transformation of normal cells to cancer.

This biomarker has the potential, with further development, to be used as a test to help diagnose aggressive prostate cancer. It is rewarding to have reached this point in our understanding of prostate cancer and toward a diagnostic test that ultimately could save lives.

Our research findings were published last year in the Journal of Proteomics & Bioinformatics (5:090-095, DOI:10.4172/jpb.1000218). Our latest study, published in Drug Development Research, lays the foundation for predicting which prostate cancer patients may develop more aggressive forms of the disease and directs the future design of more effective treatments [14(2):65-80, DOI: 10.1002/ddr.21063].

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